An open-seat congressional race like the one in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District is never taken for granted.
Retiring GOP Rep. John Kline had won easily here since first being elected in 2002. But on August 9, when the Republican Party’s endorsed candidate, Jason Lewis, soundly won his primary, you could almost hear Minnesota Democrats gleefully rubbing their hands together.
Lewis is a former talk radio host with two decades of baggage consisting of incendiary statements on air and a book on states’ rights in which he questioned whether the Civil War should have been fought.
Democrats believed Lewis would be an ideal foil for their candidate, former St. Jude Medical executive Angie Craig, a political newcomer who would seem a sensible choice compared to Lewis the firebrand.
For a time, they appeared correct: Lewis struggled to raise money and earn the backing of key D.C. Republican groups.
But things have changed in the past few weeks, with outside GOP groups committing hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars to the race, independent polling showing a competitive contest, and political handicappers re-classifying it as a true toss-up.
With Election Day three weeks away, has Lewis made the Second District truly competitive?
GOP establishment ignored Lewis…
The CD2 primary was barely over when the Cook Political Report, which rates the competitiveness of political contests, moved the race from the “toss-up” category — where it had sat since Kline announced his retirement last year — to “lean Democratic.”
Lewis’ “long history of provocative statements make Democratic healthcare executive Angie Craig a slight favorite to flip a key swing seat,” Cook’s Dave Wasserman wrote at the time.
The Republican started with a huge cash disadvantage, with just over $100,000 on hand after his primary win. Craig had close to $2 million at the time.
In that scenario, a candidate short on cash would rely on allied groups to come in and air negative ads, but the National Republican Congressional Committee and others didn’t seem so keen on it.
Establishment-minded Republicans, including Kline, had wanted Darlene Miller, a Burnsville businesswoman, to win the GOP primary over Lewis, and some of them mused that nominating Lewis would ensure a Democratic win.
Compounding the problem for Lewis was that the national congressional map expanded thanks to the candidacy of Donald Trump, a development that drew a strong challenger to 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen into the race — state Sen. Terri Bonoff.
By late summer, NRCC and other GOP groups had their hands full defending Paulsen, while also bolstering the candidacy of Stewart Mills in the 8th Congressional District.
Pointedly, D.C. called in the cavalry for Mills and Paulsen — Speaker Paul Ryan came to Minnesota to fundraise for them in August. But Ryan did not make a stop for Lewis.
Even past Labor Day, some had written off Lewis, and political observers in Minnesota believed he might not get much help from outside groups.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC inundated the airwaves with negative attacks on Lewis, spending a combined $1.2 million.
…until they didn’t
By last week, though, things started to look up for Lewis. The NRCC released a poll on October 12 showing Lewis up on Craig, 36 percent to 33 percent, with 26 percent of voters undecided.
By no means should a partisan poll be construed as a fair reflection of reality — but the takeaway was that national Republicans were finally expending resources to bolster Lewis’ candidacy.
After the poll’s release, the NRCC’s first anti-Craig ad ran on Twin Cities airwaves. (The committee has spent $612,000 total on ads in CD2 so far this cycle. In the competitive race in Minnesota’s 8th District, the committee has put $2.2 million toward backing challenger Stewart Mills.)
Perhaps prompted by that, last Friday — before the first debate between Lewis, Craig, and Independence Party candidate Paula Overby — the Cook Report moved CD2 back into the toss-up column.
Then, on Monday night, a KSTP/SurveyUSA poll was released showing Craig leading Lewis by just five percent, 46 to 41, with 12 percent of voters undecided.
On Tuesday morning, the NRCC was out with a new ad attacking Craig over Obamacare, featuring Gov. Mark Dayton's statement from last week that the law had grown less affordable.
Lewis remains an underdog, but those in Republican circles are appreciating that the CD2 race is still competitive heading into the campaign’s final stretch.
John Rouleau, who runs the GOP-aligned Minnesota Jobs Coalition, put that on Craig, saying she “has proven to be an exceptionally weak candidate… and has drastically underperformed the expectations set for her by the DCCC and the rest of the Democrat establishment that hand-picked her.”
According to Brian McClung, a longtime GOP strategist, “the Craig campaign made a strategic mistake by not defining Lewis early. They allowed the race to stay close and now the NRCC is strongly engaged. Look for this one to stay competitive all the way to Election Day.”
Though Craig had $900,000 on hand at the end of September, and raised $3.4 million total during the cycle, outside Democratic groups are spending heavily now to influence the race.
To Rouleau, that means they know it’s more competitive than they want it to be; indeed, half of the $624,000 that House Majority PAC has spent on the race has come in the last week.
Campaigns go into final weeks in different positions
According to Darin Broton, a longtime DFL operative, analysts like Cook “moved the race way too quickly to lean Democrat.”
Though this district has voted to send a Republican to the U.S. House every election since 2000, it voted narrowly for Barack Obama in 2012 and Sen. Al Franken in 2014. While the most recent round of redistricting is believed to have made it more competitive, CD2 still skews more Republican than CD3, the other GOP-held metro district.
“I think early on, a lot of Republicans here and in D.C. hadn’t thought about this race as on the radar screen. Jason was not their preferred candidate in the 2nd Congressional District,” Broton said, adding that the NRCC seemed to be saving money for other races.
But those races have developed in their favor, he said, citing CD3 and other contests, freeing up resources to help Lewis.
Broton, though he said Lewis is running a “decent” campaign, said that Democrats had gotten a little cocky about Craig’s chances to win in CD2, and had not yet crafted a compelling message for Craig’s candidacy.
“At some point,” Broton said, “there’s gotta be a compelling reason why to hire Angie Craig.”
The Craig campaign, though, is very confident in its operation, and is touting its voter outreach efforts as one of the most comprehensive in state history.
Bernie Hesse, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789, has been door-knocking for Democrats in CD2 this cycle. He said he can’t believe how good Craig’s field operation has been. “That’s a huge difference from the last cycles we experienced,” he said.
Nor is the Craig campaign particularly impressed with the newfound outside attention to the race. According to a Craig spokesperson, “National groups have still invested very few resources to support Jason Lewis. It just illustrates how deeply flawed his candidacy is and how reluctant even his own party is to stand up for him.”
But he’ll need them to stand up. Lewis is still at a huge cash disadvantage: by the end of September, he had $57,000 cash on hand, compared to Craig’s $900,000. To stay competitive, he will need to lean heavily on the continued support of outside groups, and earned media like debates and radio and TV appearances.
Republicans concede that isn’t exactly an airtight strategy — but that things are looking up more than they were on August 10.